U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
OVERVIEW OF FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Over the past year, while economic woes captured world headlines, an ongoing crisis of equal breadth and scope frequently went unnoticed. Across the global landscape, the pivotal human right of religious freedom was under escalating attack. To an alarming extent, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief was being curtailed, often threatening the safety and survival of innocent persons, including members of religious minorities.
In Egypt, an epicenter of the Arab Spring, hope turned to dismay, as human rights conditions, particularly religious freedom abuses, worsened dramatically under military rule. Authorities continued to prosecute and sentence citizens charged with blasphemy and allowed official media to incite violence against religious minority members, while failing to protect them or to convict responsible parties. Law enforcement and the courts fostered a climate of impunity in the face of repeated attacks against Coptic Christians and their churches. Rather than defending these minorities, military and security forces turned their guns on them, using live ammunition against Coptic Christians and other demonstrators, killing dozens and wounding hundreds in Maspero Square.
Other governmental actors over the past year also repressed the right to religious freedom, especially of religious minority members. Iran‘s theocracy targeted Baha‘is, as well as Christians, Zoroastrians, and Sufi Muslims. Members of these groups were harassed, arrested, and imprisoned, including Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian convert who was put on trial for his life. Some dissenters were even executed, while hatred was fomented against Jews through repeated Holocaust denial and other means. In China, the government made conditions for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims the worst in decades.
The failure to prevent or punish violence against vulnerable religious minorities provided a grim portrait of how states can create or fuel a culture of impunity, encouraging private citizens or groups to threaten, intimidate, and even murder others. In Nigeria, the government for years had failed to stem Muslim-Christian violence or bring the perpetrators to justice, emboldening others to commit further bloodshed. The violence reached a terrible peak over the past year, claiming more than 800 lives, displacing 65,000 people, and destroying churches and mosques in the three days after Nigeria‘s presidential election, and at least 35 more lives in a series of coordinated church bombings on Christmas Day. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws and other discriminatory measures such as the anti-Ahmadi provisions have created an atmosphere conducive to chronic violence, which has worsened due to the government‘s failure to bring to justice, or even to charge, anyone for the March 2011 assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who was Pakistan‘s Federal Minister for Minority Affairs and a longtime religious freedom advocate.
Coupled with the continued exportation of religious extremist material from Saudi Arabia across the Middle East and into parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe, cultures of impunity have strengthened the hand of terrorist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ramping up killings and other abuses.
Whether Ahmadis, Baha‘is, Christians, or others, religious minority individuals and their communities are – to a chilling extent – in trouble. Across much of the Middle East, Christian communities that have been a presence for nearly 20 centuries have experienced severe declines in population, aggravating their at-risk status in the region.
To be sure, religious freedom abuses harm members of religious majorities and minorities alike. But make no mistake: across much of the world, persons associated with religious minority communities often are harmed the most. Even when violations do not include or encourage violence, intricate webs of discriminatory rules, regulations, and edicts can impose tremendous burdens on these communities and their adherents, making it difficult for them to function and grow from one generation to the next, potentially threatening their existence. For example, while an electoral democracy, Turkey fails to legally recognize religious minority communities, such as the Alevis, the Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, and the Jewish community. Furthermore, Turkish officials meddle in these communities‘ internal government and education and limit their worship rights.
In the end, the right to freedom of religion or belief should extend to every individual in every community and country. Since its inception, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has been committed to this fundamental principle and universal standard. USCIRF will continue to report on countries where this freedom is lacking and make positive recommendations for reform.
Religious freedom abuses must never go unchallenged. This is not merely USCIRF‘s opinion, or a reflection of our own heritage as a free people. It is a basic tenet of humanity, a moral, ethical and legal duty that the United States ought to honor with action.